JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

December 13, 2009

THE CHURCH
Probably I'll continue mentioning the church atop the little hill where I live. It's Old St. Isidro Labrador Church. You can see the church, with my ochre-colored, stonewalled, storage room attached at the right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213ch.jpg.

*****

SERJANIA VINES IN FULL FLOWER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213sj.jpg you see a very common sight around here these days: a robust, woody vine climbing high into trees and overtopping them with masses of small, white flowers. The Northerner can think of similarly behaving plants in the Temperate Zone, such as Virgins-Bower, but they're not nearly as vigorous and tough-looking as these. Let's approach the vine diagnostically:

The leaves turn out to be large, twice-compound things usually divided into nine leaflets (biternate), shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213sk.jpg.

The biternate leaves arranged one at a node on a woody vine remind one of the Balloon-Vine we saw back in Querétaro, and which is naturalized throughout the US Southeast. You can review what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/balloon.htm. In that picture the Balloon-Vine's twice-compound leaves enter the picture at the upper left. So, is it another species of Balloon-Vine?

Drawing the flowers close you see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213sl.jpg.

One interesting feature of the flower at the left is that several stamens have been replaced by staminodes -- sterile appendages derived from stamens that may serve such functions as attracting pollinating insects or giving them something to hold onto as they probe for nectar. Another interesting feature about the flower on the left is that if you dissect it you won't find female parts. It's a unisexual male flower with the only sexual parts being stamens. A close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213sn.jpg.

In contrast, the flower at the right consists of nothing but the female parts of stigma, style and ovary perched atop a calyx's white sepals, and surrounded at its base by brown, withering petals. The stigma is 3-parted, the style is a green stalk, and the ovary is wooly on top, and three-cornered.

Well, Balloon-Vine's Chinese-lantern-like fruits are three cornered, but the flowers are different, much larger for one thing. So, at this stage in the diagnosis process we're starting to think "Maybe the same family as the Balloon-Vine (the Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae) but a different genus." Then you see the fruits and you KNOW it's not a Balloon-Vine. Look: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213sm.jpg.

What we have here is SERJANIA MEXICANA, a member of the same family as the Balloon-Vine, but with fruits not at all Chinese-lantern-like. If the vine has an English name I can't find it. When the fruits are mature each splits into three sections, each section bearing a seed with a wing, looking and behaving a bit like a maple fruit, which is a samara-fruit.

Despite its abundance here there's little information on this plant. It's reported from most of lowland, humid Mexico and much of Central America. Standley says that the tough stem is often used as rope. Maximino Martiez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México reports it as useful in the treatment of "rheumatism" and syphilis, and when I asked a Maya friend he volunteered "reumatismo" without my suggesting it. I think rheumatism is the same as arthritis.

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THE CALABASH TREE'S CURIOUS BLOSSOM
Three years ago at San Juan Hacienda I introduced you to those wonderful trees who supply the pretty bowls the Maya use, the jícaras (HEE-kah-rahs). In English we call the trees Calabash Trees. They're CRESCENTIA CUJETE and you can still see my round, bald head competing with similar features of a big jícara fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/calabash.htm.

The Calabash Tree's two-inch-long flowers (5 cm) are almost as interesting as its spherical fruits. You can see a flower, unorthodoxly bloated, fleshy, green, and arising directly from a thick branch, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213cr.jpg.

If despite its greenness and odd position on the tree, the manner in which the blossom's four stamens arch upward and hold near the floral tube's ceiling suggest to you the blossoms of Trumpet-Creeper, Catalpa, Jacaranda, Tabebuia and the like, that's right; they and the Calabash Tree are all in the Bignonia Family, the Bignoniaceae.

Once the Calabash's flower is pollinated the corolla falls of leaving a two-parted calyx and an ovary arising from the center of a bagel-like "hypogynous disk" (an arrangement characteristic of the Bignonia Family), and that ovary bears an exceedingly long style at the tip of which opens an exceptionally wide stigma. You can see this whole arrangement at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213cs.jpg.

A shot focusing on the amazing stigma is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213ct.jpg.

Have you ever seen a stigma more receptive-looking for incoming pollen? Soon after the corolla falls off the long style bearing the stigma collapses, turns brown and falls off.

*****

COW-ITCH
Here and there in the forest where it's particularly protected from the sun and wind -- where it's moist and shadowy -- you find shrubs or small trees with thick, brittle branches and broad, veiny, shallowly sawtooth-margined leaves, such as is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213ur.jpg.

Over in Belize the Creole-English speakers call that Cow-Itch, and if you touch it you'll know why, for the whole plant is covered with stinging hairs. In the Yucatan they often call it Ortiga, which is a name given to all kinds of plants with stinging hairs. It's URERA BACCIFERA, and if you've noticed the diffuse flower cluster like a halo around the thick branch to the left of the leaf in the picture, and you know your Northern plants, you may have already figured out that Cow-Itch is a member of the Nettle Family, the Urticaceae. The flower cluster with its many branches and rebranches is very much like that of the North's stinging nettles. A close-up of the inflorescence is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213us.jpg.

Note the pale, sharp, stinging hairs present even on the inflorescence's purple stems. The white globes are fleshy fruits reminiscent of mistletoe fruits. The tiny flowers at the tips of branches are unisexual, the plants coming in male and female types.

This is a typical plant of the hot, humid American tropics, found from Mexico to Peru and Argentina. In Mexico the Aztecs used to make paper from the inner bark, while in Venezuela indigenous people boiled the root for a tea to eliminate kidney stones.

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EPIPHYTES GALORE
The larger trees here often are veritable gardens of epiphytic plants -- plants growing upon other plants. Most conspicuous are the bromeliads, but a good selection of orchids also is present. Unfortunately now at the end of the rainy season this is not the time for most of the species to be blooming, so it's hard to impossible to identify most of what is found. The most common bromeliad, however, still bears fruiting structures, so I think I've figured it out. You can see how the species "grows like a weed" on the massive branches of a big Piich tree here at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213ti.jpg .

A shot better showing an individual plant is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213tj.jpg.

I'm calling this TILLANDSIA FASCICULATA. Luckily the species occurs in southern Florida, so it's well described in the Flora of North America. At least in Florida they call Tillandsia fasciculata the Cardinal Airplant. "Airplant" seems to be a general term used for nearly all bromeliads, while the "Cardinal" part surely is inspired by the plant's red floral bracts. Our plants' bracts are now brown.

One distinctive feature of the species is how the branches of its flowering and fruiting cluster -- its inflorescence -- bunch closely together at the top of the cluster's stem, or peduncle. They almost arise like big, flat fingers from a small hand-palm, so the inflorescence is said to tend toward being "palmate."

The species is abundant here on large trees, but in newer forest that was ranchland maybe 20 years ago typically they are completely absent. They need the moist shelter of a big tree around them.

Bromeliads are not parasitic on their host trees. They simply root on the branches taking nourishment from the air, and debris gathering on the trunks.

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RED GINGER
One of my tasks here is to develop a "Plant Finding Guide" so that as visitors walk around the grounds they can identify the more interesting and spectacular plants. This is something I enjoy and I always learn something new about each species.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213gg.jpg you see a pretty species planted worldwide in the tropics, Red Ginger, sometimes called Ostrich Plume, ALPINIA PURPURATA. It really is a kind of ginger, or at least a member of the Ginger Family, the Zingiberaceae. The glossy, banana-tree-like leaves are very typical of the Ginger Family, and so is the colorful, cylindrical flower-spike.

Actually, despite the spike's colorfulness, at this time our Red Gingers bear no flowers. Each red, scoop-shaped item is a bract, or modified leaf, which during the flowering season arises beneath a flower. If right now you look into the axil between a bract and the flower stem you'll find only a scar where the fruit has fallen off, or maybe in the lower bracts you'll find an old fruit. The flowers when they do come will be fragrant and orchidlike, white tinged purplish, so that's something to look forward to seeing.

Despite its prettiness this is a rugged and adaptable plant. Originally from Malaysia, in much of the tropics it's gone wild and now is considered an invasive species unwelcome in many places because of its impact on the local flora.

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WALKING IRISES
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213nm.jpg you see a two-inch broad (5cm) blossom open here nowadays. It's the Walking Iris, sometimes called Toad-Cup, NEOMARICA LONGIFOLIA, native to western Africa and South America. Despite its name it is not an iris -- not a member of the genus Iris, though it's very closely related. Gardeners think of them as a substitute for "real irises" in places too shady for irises. Normally the blossoms last for only a day, but each flower cluster, or inflorescence, bears several flowers, which bloom on consecutive days. They bloom during our rainy season, which is ending now.

The "walking" part of the name arises from how plantlets form in the inflorescence, then when the inflorescence bends to the ground at the flowering season's end, the plantlets root, form new plants, and the population year and year "walks" to a new place.

The flowers are so similar to iris flowers that it's interesting to note what sets them apart. But to understand the differences you need to grasp basic iris-flower anatomy, which is diagrammed and explained at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_iris.htm.

On that page pay particular attention to the "style arms." In most plants not in the Iris Family the style is no more than the neck or stem connecting the female ovary -- the future fruit body -- with the stigma, which is the part that future male pollen will germinate on. In the Iris Family, however, styles do strange things. In irises themselves they look like colorful petals rising in the flower's center.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091213nn.jpg you see none of that. The large, yellow structure in the middle of the picture comprises three branches of the style, each style branch bearing inconspicuous stigmatic zones at their tips. These style branches do not expand into petal-like appendages as they do in Irises, so that's something important setting the two genera apart.

It's also pretty neat how the anthers -- the brownish, baglike, frankfurter-shaped, pollen-bearing part of the male stamen --adhere to the style arms. Since the style arms hold the anthers in place, the stemlike filaments below the anthers, which normally do the job of holding anthers in place, look exceptionally weak and useless.

*****

A PARROT LOOKING AT ME
The other morning I looked up into a big Peech tree and saw a White-fronted Parrot looking back down at me. His body language showed frank curiosity and his rambling, inflected chatter couldn't have more clearly stated, "What's going on with you, why aren't you walking along like the others, I'm not sure I like this... "

If I were a scientist needing to maintain my image with peers the above paragraph would utterly discredit me for its anthropomorphism. However, I identify more with my Kentucky farmboy roots than the society of scientists, so I don't mind saying that a pig can express his hunger in a squeal, and an old red hen clucks a certain way when she's contented, and that these sounds are communications expressing states of mind and feelings those animals have.

It's a shame that most religions and other traditions instruct their adherents to regard humans as set apart from Nature, as having "souls" while other living things do not. For, when you accept that the living world around you is just as meaningfully alert and self-aware as you are, that animals all around you are experiencing feelings, states of mind that are vivid and lucid, and feeling sensations and insights with their differently wired nervous systems that you can't even imagine, the world develops a more engaging and satisfying texture, profundity and mystery for you.

Certainly no firefly rejoices in a Bach fugue, but I suspect that any firefly vividly FEELS something held in common with a Bach fugue when on a summer night he dives and flashes, sups on chill, fresh dew while seeking a mate, and feels his sensitive antennae oscillating in fragrant, onrushing night-air.

Since there's no specific part of the brain in which "the soul" or even consciousness resides, my Kentucky farmboy instincts lead me to believe that there must be a universal natural law that wherever there's a concentration of complexly organized interconnections interacting methodically, "awareness" arises. Thus surely not only dogs and chickens feel and are aware but also plants, and maybe even ecosystems, and maybe even planetary biospheres, and computers and electromagnetic fields resonating with one another in open space. Surely we are gloriously immersed in a churning, interconnecting Universe of wildly vital and beautiful emotions. We only need to can clear our minds enough to behold them.

The belief that humans are somehow set apart from Nature is not only impoverishing of spirit but also biologically lethal. It encourages the superstition that humans are so special that something must be taking care of us, that something will rescue us if we make too much of a mess of things. Thus we continue with our self-destructive and biosystem-destroying behaviors, exactly like a mischievous child expecting a parent to protect them from any real danger, and to clean up any mess.

What does an evangelist or a pamphlet-leaver at the door have to say that's even half as lucid and to the point as what that opinionated parrot said to me the other day?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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